How to Deal With Career Anxiety in Uncertain Times
(Written by Madeleine Dore. Illustrations by Minjoo Kim.)
Dealing with hardship is a hallmark of being human. As some of us grapple with more time, some of us with much less, some with loss, others with opportunity, crisis may look different to us all. But what we share is a close encounter with the uncertainty of life and a deeper need to find the bright spots in humanity.
Uncertainty, while always there, has become a defining characteristic of our working lives.
As Esther Perel said in her CreativeMornings talk, much of westernized culture has shifted into an “identity economy,” bringing with it more choice, more space, and more personal freedom — but also struggles with uncertainty, anonymity, loneliness, and self-doubt.
“Work is no longer just what you do, but who you are,” says Esther.
This intersection is a reality creative professionals and artists have long grappled with. There is often little delineation between “work” and “play” — and our art often reflects parts of who we are, making the act of sharing work particularly vulnerable to self-criticism and external critique. Worry, anxiety, or even shame can surface in this vulnerable process, and this career anxiety can sometimes stop us in our tracks during any stage of our careers or creative processes.
Career anxiety can bubble up when we are starting out, changing paths, feeling stuck, or uninspired. And crisis introduces its own set of anxieties, from job security to productivity-pressure and the constant call to “pivot.”
But, perhaps instead of feeling as if we have to produce our best creative work during crises, maybe one of the myriad of things we may learn through these times is that being comfortable with uncertainty in and of itself is a muscle that we can strengthen.
Most of all, we can learn from each other. And who better to ask than creative individuals whose job it is to see possibility in uncertainty?
“Our job is not to eliminate uncertainty,” says London-based designer and creative director Elif Gürbüz. “But rather to constantly make decisions despite of it. Keeping momentum is far more important than avoiding mistakes.”
To better understand navigating uncertain times, we turned to the generous, kind, and curious people of CreativeGuild to find out how they deal with career anxiety. We think these insights from writers, photographers, designers, and illustrators — on what they’ve learned about feeling stuck, the comparison trap, and trusting yourself in times of uncertainty — are especially even more pertinent now.
1. Learn to differentiate between feeling and fact.
You’re not good enough. You don’t have the right skills. Who are you kidding? You’ll fail. If left unchecked, our inner critic can hold us back from taking the next step in our careers, but it can also be a source of insight and direction.
“I think we all have feelings of inadequacy and it’s both normal and necessary to self-assess our skills and knowledge,” explains Stockholm-based illustrator and print designer Adriana Bellet. “The tricky part is to be able to differentiate when it’s just a projection of our insecurities and when it’s actually a fair warning for us to brush up on our knowledge and keep ourselves up-to-date by developing a new skill.”
For Cape Town-based writer, speaker, and coach Pierre Du Plessis, it helps to distinguish between what is feeling and what is fact. “Simply because I’m feeling stuck, uncertain, or like a failure does not mean it is necessarily true. It helps me to take a step back, look objectively at the situation, my own talents, and listen to the voices of those who support me to get past these emotions.”
While it’s not easy to deal with self-doubt, shame, and guilt, Los Angeles-based attorney and writer Chris Jones believes it’s important to sit with those stories.
Inspect them [your stories] with curiosity and replace them with something true. I’ve been doing this continual work, and it’s enabled me to say ‘I love you’ to myself and mean it. That’s been a game-changer for me over the last decade.” — Chris Jones
2. Life happens while we’re busy making other plans.
Setting goals, making plans, and drafting to-do lists can help ease feelings of anxiety or provide comfort during uncertain times. But, often career-defining opportunities aren’t something we can plan for.
Chris started his career by mapping it out on a color-coded spreadsheet. “Life threw that out the door pretty quickly after college though,” he says. “Life is impossible to predict and it’s all out of our control.”
But even without a plan, as the saying goes, luck favors the prepared mind.
While New York City-based illustrator Thoka Maer has never had a grand plan, but nothing was purely down to chance for her either. “For the most part, I trust my intuition, frequently ask ‘why not’ and also put in a truckload of work.”
This trifecta — trusting yourself, calling on curiosity, and doing the work — can lead to career-defining moments. “In 2012, my Tumblr with original GIFs suddenly blew up. That was unexpected momentum that slingshot me into some good opportunities,” adds Thoka.
Even our best laid plans can feel like they were penned by a stranger after some months or years pass. This rings true for Elif.
We are dynamic, ever-changing beings. And just like ourselves, our environment, culture, and the technology we have to respond to are constantly changing too. Being fit enough to respond to those is a relevant skill for this century.” — Elif Gürbüz
Facing uncertainty and remaining open to experience is key for our careers, adds Elif. “Being flexible and receptive to opportunities is as beneficial as being ambitious and setting ourselves goals, whether we reach those goals or not.”
Such an attitude can lead us to entirely new professions. For Johannesburg -based sketchnoter Roy Blumenthal, a new career came from an unexpected tap on the shoulder. “I was at a conference, doodling my observations in my notebook,” he recalls. "At the end of the event, someone sitting nearby asked if I was a visual facilitator. I wasn’t. I was an advertising copywriter, filmmaker, and industrial theatre creator, but we exchanged business cards. After some practice, I reached out and she hired me for my first paid gig as a sketchnoter.”
3. Careers are about direction, not speed.
Even with the inevitable twists and turns of our careers, getting clear on what you want can help shape your decisions and direction.
Pierre has experienced how leaning into a specific direction can help us spot new opportunities. “There is something to commitment and being clear on what you want that allows the rest to manifest,” he points out. "If you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you there. Better it is you who chooses the destination and then make adjustments on your route as you go.”
We can give ourselves little nudges and guidance towards where we want to be, explains Roy. “I use a visualization tool to make my goals concrete and achievable. Having a visualization running in the far background of my daily life gives me a way to make decisions that aren’t random.”
If you wear multiple hats, having a set purpose can tie various pursuits together. “My career has squiggled across industries, but whether as a journalist or an attorney or an entrepreneur, I’ve sought opportunities to use my voice as an advocate for change,” says Chris. Knowing what you want can also be a signpost during periods of indecision, or when we might be stifled by perfectionism or uncertainty.
For Winston-Salem based speaker and social entrepreneur Holley M. Kholi-Murchison, it has taken some time to unlearn the unrealistic expectations that come with perfectionism. Being clear on what she wants goes hand in hand with being grateful for the progress she’s making.
My business and leadership coach once said ‘Saying what you don’t want is like walking through a grocery store with a list of things you don’t want to buy’ and that has stuck with me in the moments when I’m determining whether my feelings of being stuck, indecisive, or uncertain are worth interrogating or if they’re actually just counterproductive and require that I make a different choice.” — Holley M. Kholi-Murchison
4. Confidence only comes from experience.
Self-doubt can sometimes put us in the waiting room of our own careers. We might wait until we have enough confidence to start a project or apply for an opportunity, even though confidence is only built through doing the thing.
For Thoka, the root of self-doubt or indecision comes down to lack of experience. “I struggled with feeling anxious or stuck at various levels in the past,” she says. “But time and experience let me gain more confidence and see that it’s often part of the process.”
A source of career-anxiety or insecurity can be the lack of confidence to call ourselves an artist.
Adriana has experienced this variety of self-doubt. “Because of my lack of formal education I felt for the longest time that I was not deserving of the title,” she says. "When asked if I was an illustrator, I would quickly say, ‘Oh no! I just do some silly drawings.’” Realizing that it was validation that she craved, Adriana applied for an illustration program. But she didn’t get accepted.
After wallowing in self-pity for a while, I decided to build my own education instead. I bought piles of books, watched endless hours of YouTube, signed up both online and community education classes.” — Adriana Bellet
These collective experiences eventually built the confidence she needed to feel validated in her skills. “It took time and stubbornness, but eventually when the opportunity to pursue a formal education came around again, I didn’t need it anymore. And that realization gave me the confidence to finally proclaim: I’m an illustrator, with or without a diploma!”
5. Comparison is the thief of joy.
While humans by nature compare themselves with others, we are bombarded by the picture-perfect version of people’s lives and their career highlights. When you’re comparing your insides to everybody’s outsides, it can seem like everyone has it figured while you’re still flailing, making us feel joyless in our work.
But the secret may be that nobody really knows what they are doing, says Adriana. “It might not seem so when scrolling down the Instagram feed or getting overwhelmed with the amount of beauty, wit, and style on Pinterest, but really the best projects tend to be the product of mistakes, mix-ups, and happy coincidences.”
For Vienna-based art director and graphic designer Julia Weithaler, the competitive nature of the creative industry can heighten feelings of self-doubt and career anxiety, but it can be flipped into a positive. “Research is a huge part of my job, and I’ve learned to be very careful to see the work of others as inspiration,” says Julia. “It’s important not to be intimidated or make yourself smaller just because you are not ‘there’ yet,” she adds.
Always keep in mind that you and your work are unique and that it is your life, not the life of the others. Everyone has their own life, their own way. Being yourself really is your superpower.” — Julia Weithaler
The antidote to comparison is to keep learning and stay curious.
“Curiosity is a wonderful GPS system,” adds Chris. “It has yet to lead me astray. On the contrary, almost every extraordinary opportunity I’ve had has come thanks to this approach. Just do it. See what happens. Anything is possible.”
Roy also uses curiosity as a measure, rather than comparing his success to other people. “I really don’t mind discomfort. I use it as a way of measuring whether or not my curiosity has been activated. When I’m feeling curious about something, I want to learn about it. When I’m curious, I’m out of my comfort zone,” he explains.
6. Trust the process — and yourself.
It might feel like once we get to a certain stage in our career, our self-criticism, indecision, and doubt will disappear. But as Elif puts it, each stage of growth requires a different set of experiences and skills. “It’s easier to believe that these feelings are based on inadequacy that can potentially be overcome by experience,” says Elif. “Every stage of our career challenges us out of our comfort zones in different ways. The more experienced we are, the harder those challenges become. We can never be fully certain of ourselves while doing something for the first time.”
People working in creative fields can be particularly hard on themselves, making it all the more important to cultivate trust in your ability and future.
If you are feeling lost, take a step back, accept the feeling, do something that makes you happy, and then get back in there and tackle whatever it is that makes you feel uncertain step by step. You’ve got this.“ — Julia Weithaler.
Look at what you have already accomplished, keep a compliments file, and use your experience to gain confidence for the next thing.
For New York City-based photographer Bryon Summers, it can be helpful to take a step back and evaluate his surroundings. “When I feel indecisive or uncertain, I know I’m not trusting myself,” he notes.
Stepping back sometimes helps me see the whole canvas, so I try to make a list of steps to complete the project. It’s like a map to help you see it through.” — Bryon Summers
Another way to cultivate trust in your own ability or career path is to embrace being a learner. “No one knows what they are doing because we learn by doing,” says San Francisco based illustrator and artist Sophie Lee. “Embrace uncertainty by being humble and a blank slate. The person who is willing to learn will also be the one to get help from the community.”
When what we do is so interlinked with who we are, it’s all the more important to remember your worth as a person, not just a creative professional.
It’s okay to say you don’t know. It’s okay to feel anxious about your career or path. It’s okay to feel doubt. It’s okay to learn as you go. You’re worthy even when you’re not quite sure what you’re doing, where you’re going, or who you want to be.